THE BEST YEARS of Our Lives (1946) opens with the fortuitous meeting of three veterans returning to Boone City, their hometown. They are making the journey in the nose of a B-17 bomber. The oldest, Sergeant First Class Al Stephenson (Fredric March), had been a well-to-do bank loan officer and family man. Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), an Army Air Corps navigator, was a soda jerk before enlisting. The youngest is Petty Officer Second Class Homer Parrish, a star high school quarterback who lost both hands when the aircraft carrier on which he served was fatally hit. (The actor who played Homer, Harold Russell, was an actual double amputee, having lost both hands in a stateside army training accident. Director William Wyler spotted him in an army film.)
Homer, who wears hook-like prosthetics, impresses Al and Fred with his lack of self-pity. He served in a repair shop below decks, Homer explains, and though he was in plenty of battles, never literally saw combat. “When we were sunk, all I know is there was a lot of fire and explosions,” he says. “I was ordered topside and overboard, and I was burned. When I came to I was on a cruiser, and my hands were off. After that I had it easy.”
“Easy?” says Al incredulously.
“That’s what I said,” Homer replies. “They took care of me fine. They trained me to use these things. I can dial telephones, I can drive a car. I can even put nickels in a jukebox. I’m all right. But…”
“But what, sailor?”
“Well…” Homer says. “Well, you see, I’ve got a girl.”
“She knows what happened to you?”
“Sure. They all know. But they don’t know what these things look like.”
It is the first inkling of the struggle Homer confronts throughout the film. He fears he will be pitied. He fears his girlfriend, Wilma, will find his condition too much to bear. When the taxi carrying the three men to their homes arrives at Homer’s house, Al and Fred watch Wilma embrace him as Homer’s arms remain stiffly at his side.
The cab pulls away. “You gotta hand it to the navy,” Fred comments. “They sure trained that kid how to use those hooks.”
“They couldn’t train him to put his arms around his girl, to stroke her hair,” Al quietly observes.
As the film unfolds, Fred and Al face their own homecoming challenges. Fred discovers that his military experience counts for nothing in the civilian world; he returns to his menial prewar job. Al, having learned in combat to judge men on the basis of character, not collateral, has trouble adjusting to being a banker again. He drinks too much and feels awkward with his family. But those difficulties pale in comparison to Homer’s. When the three men rendezvous at a bar, Homer betrays his frustration. “They keep staring at these hooks, or else they keep staring away from ’em,” he says of his family. “Why don’t they understand that all I want is to be treated like everybody else?”
Unable to bear their pity, Homer retreats from those who love him. Finally, Fred persuades Homer that he has a good thing in Wilma and should not let her go. Homer agrees. He finds Wilma, takes her to his bedroom, and shows her what it would be like to spend her life with him.
Quietly, matter of factly, Homer removes the harness holding his prosthetics in place. He wiggles into his pajama top, but cannot button it. Wilma does that for him. “This is when I know I’m helpless,” Homer tells her. “My hands are down there on the bed. I can’t put them on again without calling to somebody for help…. If that door should blow shut, I can’t open it and get out of this room.” He tells Wilma that having witnessed this, “I guess you don’t know what to say. It’s all right. Go on home.”
“I know what to say, Homer,” Wilma replies. “I love you. And I’m never going to leave you. Never.” Others feel that way, too. Homer’s family and friends have loved him all along, but until this moment he could not accept it. The film concludes with Fred and Al attending Homer’s wedding. Fred has found a decent job—helping to scrap the very bombers in which he once flew. Al has made peace with his job and reconnected with his wife and daughter. And Homer, who feared he would lead a life without love, has learned otherwise.
The Best Years of Our Lives won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Wyler, himself a returning veteran), and Best Actor (March). Harold Russell was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but was seen as such a long shot that the Academy created a special award for him “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.” But he did indeed win Best Supporting Actor—becoming the only person to receive two Academy Awards for the same performance.
The film owed much of its success to a superb script and performances, but The Best Years of Our Lives also offered a strong rebuttal to the debate of the day about how well millions of returning veterans would reintegrate into society. A host of social scientists and psychiatrists predicted that many would need major psychiatric intervention. “The thing that scares me most,” says Al early in the film, “is that everybody is gonna try to rehabilitate me.” Few moviegoers could miss the significance of that remark. But The Best Years of Our Lives dramatically argued against such fears.
And no character in the film illustrated that argument more eloquently than Homer Parrish.